Democracy

Let’s Talk About Europe’s Flaws and How to Tackle Them

The EU referendum debate in Britain has avoided any proper analysis of the institution’s flaws and whether or not the EU can be used by Greens to help create sustainable economies. Recent history shows the EU moving in the right direction, as fairly, democratically elected MEPs have begun taking over decision-making powers from the undemocratic bureaucrats of the Commission.

The Green Party of England and Wales rather rushed into supporting the “remain” camp in the UK-EU Referendum. It was decided by a single “emergency” motion at a Green Party conference in Bournemouth, long before Prime Minister David Cameron came up with his half-baked deal with the EU and a referendum date.

This was not the way the UK Green Party should have done this. An online ballot of all members would have been more suitable. It may well have reached the same outcome, but at least more people would have had a say. But regardless of this conference “decision”, the Green Party is sensible enough not to force its members to speak with one voice and to tolerate those – like Jenny Jones and Rupert Read – who go against the party line on this.

So where to stand? In, out, or neither? The arguments from all three sides have each been singularly uncompelling and unsatisfying because they never delve properly into analysing what is wrong with the EU and what can be done to fix it. The ‘Innies’ say that the EU has given the UK loads of environmental and social goodies without saying what its flaws are; while the ‘Outties’ linger on its fundamental flaws, usually asserting that it cannot be reformed because of its fundamental nature, without really adducing any evidence.

The flaws

So, in order to decide which way to vote, it is necessary to first examine the EU’s flaws to see if it is true that they are irreparable. So, what are the failings of the EU, as far as Greens are concerned?

Jenny Jones, the sole Green Party member of the House of Lords and the most prominent “out” campaigner, argued July 2015 that there was something “rotten at the heart of Europe”. She is right, to an extent. She points to the EU Parliament’s approval of TTIP and the EU’s treatment of Greece as evidence that the institution has a neo-liberal corporate ideology at its heart. She says that “Green and progressive voters will lack any leverage, so long as we tolerate a bad EU for fear of something even worse.”

Rupert Read, a former lead EU Green Party candidate who intends to #VoteNeither and spoil his ballot paper, uses the example of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which he rightly says has industrialised and marketised farming in Eastern Europe, at the expense of the environment.

But to call the EU “bad” is like calling a barrel of apples bad because half of them are rotten. That means half of them are still good and can be saved. Greens across Europe have to keep pointing to the rot and are pushing to remove it. And both Jenny Jones and Rupert Read are wrong if they say that no realistic prospect exists for the EU to be reformed for the better.

Founding principles

The story of the EU is one that is rarely told properly by either side, pro or against. It is true that the earliest 1951 version of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, as one of its goals, aimed to cement peace between France and Germany, and it surely succeeded within a decade. But its aim was to do this via trade and to boost production, consumption and economic growth. It was primarily a trading bloc designed to compete with the might of the US.

As such, it was profoundly un-Green. “Maximise production!” Could be said to be its battle cry. But something happened in 1979 that began to subtly alter that agenda. What was originally meant to be a mere add-on talking shop with a few bones thrown in by the founding Council – “the Consultative Assembly” – became a directly elected European Parliament. This put the democratic cat amongst the bureaucratic pigeons. Ever since, the history of the EU has been one of the Parliament using its democratic mandate to gain more and more powers over the bureaucrats of the European Commission – who see their role as bolstering trade and competitiveness of Europe against other nations – and also checking the often self-serving national politicians of the European Council.

Democracy virus

This process is still by no means complete, but it would appear to be inescapable. The creation of a fairly elected body in the heart of a cosy bureaucratic trading group has unleashed a “democracy virus” within the EU that is irreversible. The MEPs are largely elected for the presumed ideals of the political parties they represent. The ideals of at least 50 out of the 55 MEPs in the Green bloc include turning the EU into a supporter of sustainability and ending its constant chasing of economic growth. Ever closer integration is not in the manifesto of many other political parties in the EU, nor is taking more powers from sovereign nations. It is important to understand, however, that the Parliament takes powers from the Commission, not from national governments. Making the EU more democratic does not make it more centralised, so long as greater centralisation is against the wishes of the electorate of each Member State.

The European Parliament (though not perhaps the EU as a whole) can now truthfully be said to be more democratic than Britain’s parliament in Westminster, with its outdated first-past-the-post electoral system.

Three-headed beast

But the European Parliament is still the only accountable and responsive head of the three-headed beast that is the EU. The other two heads – the European Commission and the European Council – are appointed. Council members are appointed by the individual governments of Member States, while the Commission President is appointed by the Council.

From its earliest days, though it was given no powers to do so, the European Parliament began to draft proposals to reform the functioning of the EU. From the 1980s, it began holding votes on proposed Commission Presidents, even though it had no formal power to appoint or veto them.

In 1999, allegations of fraud and mismanagement by the Commissioners, headed by Commission President Jacques Santer, led to the Parliament threatening a vote of censure on all the Commissioners. As a result, they all resigned.

Every time there is a new European treaty, the Parliament has been able to use its democratic mandate to negotiate itself more powers over the Commission. It is now legally able to do what it had been doing using its moral authority alone: veto the appointment of Commission presidents. It has been granted equal rights to amend legislation of the Council of Ministers, and it can also approve or reject EU budgets. Individual political groups in the Parliament (led first by the Greens) have even begun to nominate their own candidates for Commission President, and the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 forced the Commission to take the Parliament into account when appointing the President.

End the Strasbourg gravy train

The Parliament is keen to end its ridiculously wasteful monthly trips between Brussels and Strasbourg, but the decision about where Parliament sits is still the gift of the Council of Ministers, not the Parliament itself. It is also still unable to hire and fire individual Commissioners (though it can, and does, veto them) and unable to call them to account before its committees. Worse still, Parliament can still not initiate legislation. That is still done by the appointed Commission.

However, back in 2010, in tough negotiations with the newly appointed Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, a small group of parliamentarians, including the German Green MEP Rebecca Harms, came very close. Barroso, fearing that the Parliament would not approve his line-up of Commissioners, said that Parliament already had a de facto right to initiate legislation. This was because, Barroso said, the Commission usually responded favourably to any “request” for new legislation from the Parliament.

A small side note: a final hurdle is that, crucially, Parliament is still unable to appoint the European Central Bank (ECB) President. This, however, is something the Greens have been pushing for it to be able to do.

Greece – a victim of an unelected Troika, not the parliament

This shows why it would be wrong to blame the EU as a whole for forcing austerity onto the Greek people. The “Troika” that wielded the knife was made up of the unelected European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the ECB (whose president, the former Goldman Sachs executive Mario Draghi, was appointed by the European Council). If the Parliament had been allowed to vote on Greece, it would have been more likely to force the banks, instead of the Greek people, to take more of a haircut.

TTIP – Britain more in favour than Europe

It is true that the Parliament voted in favour of TTIP, the EU-US trade deal, in June 2015. However, a strong wave of public opposition – notably a 3.2 million-signed petition (a European Citizens’ Initiative) against the deal in July of last year – saw that in spite of voting in favour of TTIP, the Parliament did so only on the condition that a controversial section of it (Safe Harbour data sharing) that the US wanted including was removed. This objection meant that America’s goal of sealing the deal by the end of the year was thwarted, leaving more time to apply public pressure on MEPs to reject the deal completely. Because the Parliament is elected by proportional representation, few MEPs have “safe seats” and are more likely to respond to pressure than Westminster MPs. The secrecy of the talks, of which the US insist, is also being undermined by public pressure, leaks and the opposition of many MEPs. The British Conservative Party have also said that they want to sign a trade deal with the US, regardless of whether the UK is in or out of the EU. So, leaving will not save the UK from a US trade deal, in which the electorate will have zero input.

Scrap the CAP

As for Rupert Read’s argument about the EU’s commodification and marketisation of farming in Eastern Europe, he is probably right. But the instrument that the EU used was the CAP, a creature of the Commission, dreamt up almost at the same time that the EEC was founded. It is only since 2013 – long after the accession of several Eastern European countries to the EU – that the Parliament has been allowed to vote on reforms to the CAP. To change it, pressure must be continued to be applied for the Parliament to have powers to initiate legislation and reforms. The CAP must be reformed so that it no longer subsidises wealthy landowners and environmental destruction, but instead supports a transition to sustainable farming methods. Subsidies for sustainable farming have grown over the years but are still very rare; a drop in the ocean. The pressure to change the wasteful CAP, however, is already intense. Allowing the democratically elected Parliament to change it could make that pressure irresistible.

A work in progress

It is a shame that the need for a more democratic European Union is being lost in the arguments about whether or not to be in it. For Greens, the EU must be seen as a work in progress; not for greater integration or greater trade, but for greater sustainability, deeper democracy and tougher controls on the transnational rich and powerful. They should also bear in mind that so long as we have a fairer voting system in the EU than in the UK, British Greens will have more influence in Brussels than in Whitehall. If the UK leaves the EU, it will not be able to start again. There is no other organisation in town. The EU is it: undemocratic warts and all.

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Let’s Talk About Europe’s Flaws and How to Tackle Them

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